KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The pickup rattles along Route H in Oak Grove, Mo., until it stops square with a gnarled tree.

“This is it,” says Jack Hackley.

The spot where he still sees the Civil War, “right where my great-grandfather stood when he watched it.”

Nearly 150 years ago, James L. Turner was eyewitness to nine burning homesteads … orange flames … black smoke … blue uniforms …

“I always heard the smoke from those fires just curled up,” Hackley said, his finger drawing tiny swirls in the air.

The 77-year-old Hackley’s telling of the federal scourge known as Order No. 11 has been passed down from generation to generation. Always told in this field. Always with the same theme: Yankees did this to us.

In these parts of Missouri, family lineages often include such tales of Confederate martyrdom. Some trace their politics back to Civil War divisions: defenders of traditional values caught in the forward march of Big Government — led by Abraham Lincoln then, by Barack Obama now.

But skeptics ask, are they celebrating Confederate heritage or capitalizing on a now-popular term, “states’ rights,” to shed negative Southern baggage?

In this sesquicentennial, a theme has emerged — a neo-Civil War of words and suspicions lobbed toward those who are passionate about remembering but who tend to forget the harsh past of slavery.

“That’s not just an issue with Southerners and the Civil War,” said Jesse Milan, retired professor of education at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan. He sees history books and teachers too often ducking many issues about race. “All of U.S. history is full of denying, even in the 21st century.”

Others say shame has been shackled to pride for too long.

“Times have changed greatly over the last 50 years,” said Bill Myrick, a Sons of Confederate Veterans camp commander speaking at an Alabama event. “Political correctness has managed to instill a false shame in so many Southerners. One has only to mutter the word ‘racist’ to send many into hiding.”

Only 38 percent of Americans said in a Pew Research Center poll that slavery was the major cause of the fighting. The April survey showed 48 percent believe the war was mainly about states’ rights. Puzzled academics digging deep into the thinking of the 1800s say, no, it was mostly about slavery.

Hackley is perplexed about it, too: “A funny thing. … Out of all the stories I ever heard, no one in my family ever mentioned slavery.” His ancestors, being pretty poor, probably didn’t own slaves, anyway.

What the war dealt his family is sad enough.

Among the many whom Great-Grandfather Turner killed were his brother and a neighbor, both Union men. Years later, he tried to kill himself and spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum.

“Yeah,” says Hackley, his face drawn with sadness. “You could say my family was bitter about that war.

“Still is.”

LINEAGE GROUPS SEEN AS RACIST

Setting aside nearby antebellum Lexington, Mo., the region’s epicenter of Southern memory is surely Independence. Here meet the Civil War Roundtable of Western Missouri, the Civil War Study Group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Quantrill Society.

At a Sons meeting in April sat Patrick Cole, his eyes shaded by the blue-tinted spectacles favored by war re-enactors. With long brown hair and goatee, he seemed to walk off a page of antebellum history.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Cole, 33, offering a genteel bow. “I’m a neo-Confederate and proud of it. I have lived under federal domination all my life and believe the Southern government was the best form of governing America has ever seen.”

But in a later interview, after Googling the hate-group-fighting Southern Poverty Law Center’s definition of “neo-Confederate” — “a reactionary conservative ideology that … overlaps with the views of white nationalists and other more radical extremist groups” — the Independence man recanted.

“I’m not that at all,” he said. What ignited his interest in the Civil War was the history never learned in school. The details that keep emerging won’t let go, he explained.

Although these lineage groups include FBI agents, police, firefighters and military veterans, many are mindful of a public who sees only a love for the Confederate flag and not their love for history.

Out-of-town hotels have denied reservations to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, believing it to be racist, said Trish Spencer, chapter president. Their display booth was vandalized at one.

The members shook their heads sadly as Sandi Leshikar recalled how her employer, just that day, jokingly “wanted to know when my Ku Klux Klan meeting would be over.”

“It’s frustrating,” Spencer said. “Our No. 1 goal is to remember our Southern roots. What’s wrong with that?”

Younger Americans might wonder, too.

Polled by Pew on the major reason the Civil War erupted, six out of every 10 people younger than 30 chose “states’ rights.”

But then, they didn’t live through the racial turmoil of the mid-1900s.

When President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond founded the States’ Rights Party and launched a presidential bid centered on racial separation.

The Ku Klux Klan and much of the Deep South waved the rebel flag as a symbol against federal efforts forcing states to integrate schools and giving voting rights to blacks.

Thurmond said nobody should “force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the (black) race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”

For the next couple of decades, “states’ rights certainly was code for segregation,” said Washington University professor Wayne Fields, an expert on political rhetoric. “It has since become a softer, gentler term reflecting more of a libertarian position. It’s abstract, wrapped in an incredible amount of vagueness and ambiguity.”

Many historians reject states’ rights as the reason perhaps a quarter-million Southern men died. Especially since the Confederate constitution provided little in the way of additional states’ rights than those outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

A key difference: The Confederate constitution cited slaveholding as a specific right. States of the Confederacy weren’t allowed the right to outlaw slavery.

SCHOLARS: SLAVERY DROVE SECESSION

When classroom teachers have the time to tackle the “slavery or states’ rights” question — dates, battles and who’s who tend to eat up the hour — the safest answer is “both.”

Historians agree that the institution of slavery was so vital to a Southern economy largely based on cotton — and crucial as well to emerging textile mills in the North — it drove the South to secede. Framers of the Confederacy considered secession their right.

Lincoln and Union men deemed the states’ leaving to be unlawful, anarchic and treasonous, and they moved to block it. That, say Southern sympathizers, led to a needless bloodbath.

Even that pared-down explanation can create more arguments than some teachers care to encourage. But would it help or hurt young minds to ponder the words of Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy?

“Our new government is founded … its cornerstone rests,” he said, “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man: that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”